Psalm 139
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The consciousness of the intimate personal relation between God and man which is characteristic of the whole Psalter reaches its climax here. The omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence of Jehovah are no cold philosophical abstractions for the Psalmist. He realises most vividly that Jehovah is One Who knows all his thoughts and actions, One from Whose universal Presence he cannot escape, One Who has fashioned his frame and ordered his life. With profound reverence he meditates on these truths in an address to God, recognising their mystery and awfulness, and seeking not to escape from God but to yield himself more fully to His control and guidance.

The Psalm falls into four divisions.

i. Jehovah knows every thought and action (Psalm 139:1-6).

ii. To escape from His Presence is impossible (Psalm 139:7-12).

iii. Nor is this surprising, for it is He Who has moulded the Psalmist’s frame and ordered his life, with unsearchable depth of wisdom (Psalm 139:13-18).

iv. How can this All-seeing, Almighty God tolerate evil men? With such the Psalmist will have no fellowship. May God search his heart, and purge it from every evil way (Psalm 139:19-24)!

The title A Psalm of David cannot indicate its authorship. The language of the Psalm is not pure Hebrew, but is marked by a strong Aramaic colouring. It resembles the language of the Book of Job, and in several respects the thought of the Psalm is also akin to that book. The problem of God’s tolerance of the wicked perplexed the Psalmist (Psalm 139:19 ff.), as it perplexed Job Vv13-16 resemble Job 10:9 ff. Elôah, the common word for God in Job, but found only four times in the Psalter, occurs in Psalm 139:19; and the word for ‘slay’ in the same verse is used in Heb. elsewhere only in Job, though it is common in Aramaic.

The addition of Zachariah, in Cod. A of the LXX, with the further gloss in the margin, in the dispersion (both readings are found in the Zürich Psalter, T) may preserve a tradition of the exilic or post-exilic origin of the Psalm. But when or where it was written must remain unknown. If the provenance of the Book of Job could be determined, we might be on the track of the origin of this Psalm.

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David. O LORD, thou hast searched me, and known me.
1. searched me] Cp. Psalm 139:23; Jeremiah 17:10.

and known me] Or, and knowest me, for nothing can be hid from that omniscient scrutiny.

1–6. God’s perfect knowledge of all the Psalmist’s life and thoughts.

Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, thou understandest my thought afar off.
2. Thou knowest] Thou is emphatic. It is God alone Who possesses this absolute knowledge of His creatures.

my downsitting and mine uprising] My whole life, at rest or in activity. Cp. Psalm 127:2; Deuteronomy 6:7.

thought] The word used here and in Psalm 139:17 is an Aramaism, found here only in the O.T.

afar off] Cp. Psalm 138:6; Jeremiah 23:23. The P.B.V. long before is also a possible rendering. Neither space nor time exist for God.

Thou compassest my path and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways.
3. Thou compassest] Rather, Thou hast examined, lit. thou hast winnowed, or sifted, subjecting my life to the closest and most discriminating investigation.

my path] Rather, my walking, contrasted with my lying down. Cp. Proverbs 6:22.

For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether.
4. God knows not merely the spoken word which men can hear, but its true meaning, and the secret thoughts which prompt its utterance. But the verse may also be rendered, For (when) a word is not yet on my tongue, Lo, thou &c. Before thought has formed itself into words and found expression, the Searcher of hearts knows it.

Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.
5. beset me] The word is used of besieging a town. God hems him in on all sides so that he cannot escape. The P.B.V. thou hast fashioned me follows the LXX and other Ancient Versions in a less probable rendering.

laid thine hand upon me] God holds him fast in His grasp, exercises His authority over him. Cp. Job 9:33.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.
6. A concluding exclamation of reverent awe. Such infinite knowledge baffles human thought to comprehend it. Cp. Romans 11:33.

(so) exalted (that) I cannot attain unto it] “The word used implies ‘high so as to be inaccessible’; it is used, for instance, of an impregnable city, Deuteronomy 2:36” (Driver). It is also used of God, Isaiah 2:11; Isaiah 2:17; Isaiah 12:4.

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
7. The power and presence of God are universal. The Psalmist’s question does not imply that he wishes to escape from God, but that escape would be impossible if he wished it. The ‘spirit of Jehovah’ in the O.T. is “the living energy of a personal God” (see Swete in Hastings’ Bible Dict. ii. p. 404): His ‘presence’ (lit. countenance) is His personal manifestation of Himself in relation to men. See Oehler, Theology of O.T. i. § 57. Cp. Exodus 33:14-15; Jonah 1:3; Jonah 1:10; Isaiah 63:9-10; Wis 1:7 ff.

7–12. God is everywhere present: man cannot escape or hide himself.

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
8. Cp. Amos 9:2 ff.; Jeremiah 23:24.

If I should ascend up] Another Aramaic word.

if I make my bed in hell] Render, and if I should make Sheol my couch.

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
9. If I should lift up the wings of the dawn &c.] If I were to fly with the swiftness of light from the east to the furthest west. The dawn swiftly spreading over the sky, is naturally represented as winged. Cp. ‘wings of the wind,’ Psalm 18:10, ‘wings of the sun,’ Malachi 4:2.

The sea, from the position of the Mediterranean to the west of Palestine, denotes the West.

Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
10. The thought in this context is not primarily that wherever he goes God’s providential care accompanies him, but that there is no place in the universe where he can escape from the control and authority of God. “Dextra Dei ubique.”

If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
11, 12. And if I say, Nay, but darkness might shroud me,

And the light about me become night;

Even darkness hideth not from thee, &c.

It is as impossible to hide from God under cover of darkness as it is to escape from Him by change of place (Psalm 139:8-9). The A.V. even the night shall be light about me seems to mean that the light of God’s presence will banish the terrors of darkness; but this sense does not fit the context. The Psalmist is not expressing his confidence in God’s protection, but his conviction of His omniscience. Those who think to escape God’s notice in the night as they avoid the eye of men (Job 24:13-17) do but delude themselves. The word rendered cover or shroud is a rare one, and is elsewhere taken to mean overwhelm (R.V.) but this sense does not suit the context and we must either assume that it has an unusual meaning, or emend the text. Symm. and Jer. render cover.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb.
13. For it was thou that didst form my reins] Thou is emphatic. The connexion of thought expressed by for is not obvious; but it appears to give a reason for the intimate knowledge of which the preceding verses have spoken. ‘Thou knowest me, for Thou didst create me.’ Psalm 139:14 will then be a parenthetical exclamation of adoring wonder. The transposition of Psalm 139:13-14, proposed by some critics, removes the difficulty and gives a clearer connexion of thought, but poetry does not bind itself by forms of logic.

my reins] The inmost seat of the emotions, which God ‘tries’ (Psalm 7:9).

thou hast covered me] Better, thou didst knit me together, with bones and sinews. Cp. Job 10:8-11.

13–18. God must know the Psalmist perfectly, for He ordered the first beginnings of his life, and foresaw all his destiny.

I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well.
14. I will praise thee] I will give thanks unto thee.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made] The Ancient Versions represent the second person, thou art fearfully wondrous.

marvellous] Wonderful, the same word as in the preceding clause.

My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth.
15. my substance] R.V. my frame, lit. my bones or skeleton.

in secret] i.e. in the womb (Psalm 139:13).

curiously wrought] i.e. fashioned with skill and care. (Curious = Lat. curiosus, ‘wrought with care.’ Cp. Exodus 28:8, “the curious girdle of the ephod,” R.V. “the cunningly woven band.”) The word which means literally woven or embroidered with threads of different colours, is applied by a natural metaphor to the complex and intricate formation of the body.

in the lowest parts of the earth] In the womb, as dark and mysterious as the nether world. The formation of the body is meant, and there is no reference to the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls, which is found in Wis 8:20; cp. Verg. Aen. vi. 713 ff., 884. See Schultz, O.T. Theology, Vol. ii. p. 251, E.T.

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them.
16. my substance, yet being unperfect] R.V. mine unperfect substance. The word (gôlem) is a different one from that in Psalm 139:15, and denotes the undeveloped embryo. Cp. Aram, gôlmâ, an unfinished vessel.

all my members] Lit. all of them, which A.V. and R.V. interpret to mean all the members into which the embryo was to develop. But it is better (cp. R.V. marg.) to regard the pronoun as anticipatory, and to render,

And in thy book were all of them written,

Even days which were formed,

When as yet there was none of them.

Each day of his life with all its history was pre-determined by the Creator and recorded in His book, before one of them actually was in existence:—a clear expression of the truth that there is an ideal plan of life providentially marked out for every individual. (Ephesians 2:10.)

The Q’rç or traditional reading of the Hebrew text, reads , ‘for it’ instead of lô’ ‘not’ (see note on Psalm 100:3), giving the sense, and for it there was one among them: one of them was pre-ordained as ‘its day,’ the day of its birth. Cp. ‘his day,’ Job 3:1.

How precious also are thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!
17. To me then, who am the object of all this care, how precious are thy thoughts, O God! It is my delight to meditate upon the purposes of Thy Providence. How vast are the sums of them! There are, as it were, many items in that inexhaustible theme, each of which is immeasurable. Cp. Psalm 36:7; Psalm 92:5; Job 26:14.

It is possible however that the word rendered precious means rather incomprehensible, overwhelming; and that the Psalmist is contrasting his knowledge of God with God’s knowledge of him. ‘Thou knowest all my thoughts and ways; but to me Thy thoughts are immeasurable and incomprehensible.’

If I should count them, they are more in number than the sand: when I awake, I am still with thee.
18. moe] For this archaism cp. Psalm 69:4.

when I awake &c.] His last thoughts as he falls asleep are of God; and when he awakes, he finds himself still in His Presence, still occupied in contemplating the mystery of His Being. Cp. Psalm 63:6. The Targum, “I awake in the world to come, and I am still with Thee”; and Symm. “I shall awake, and I shall be for ever with Thee,” interpret the words of the resurrection, but this cannot be their original meaning.

Surely thou wilt slay the wicked, O God: depart from me therefore, ye bloody men.
19. Surely &c.] Rather as R.V. marg., Oh that thou wouldest slay the wicked. The problem of the existence of evil perplexes him, as it perplexed Job (Job 21:7 ff.). Evil for him is no abstract idea; it is embodied in evil men. Will not God free His world from this insult to His government? Cp. Psalm 104:35.

depart from me] lest I be tempted by your example and involved in your fate. Cp. Psalm 6:8; Psalm 119:115.

ye bloody men] Men of blood, who do not shrink from violence and murder (Psalm 5:6; Proverbs 29:10).

19–24. But how can this omniscient God tolerate the existence of wicked men, who blaspheme and hate Him? With such the Psalmist will have no fellowship; and he concludes with a prayer that God will purify his heart, and lead him in the right way.

For they speak against thee wickedly, and thine enemies take thy name in vain.
20. For they speak against thee] This rendering involves a questionable construction. That of R.V. marg. utter thy name, lit. thee, i.e. swear falsely by thy name, suits the parallelism, but is also doubtful. Most probably the word should be read with different vowels, rebel against thee (יַמְרוּךָ for יֹמְרוּךָ); cp. Psalm 78:40.

thine enemies take thy name in vain] The text is difficult and perhaps corrupt. The word rendered thine enemies has this meaning in Aramaic, but not in Hebrew: thy name is not expressed: the verb is spelt anomalously. But slight alterations of the text would give the sense, and take thy name in vain.

Do not I hate them, O LORD, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee?
21. am not I grieved with] Do not I loathe, as in Psalm 119:158.

I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.
22. The energy of the Psalmist’s indignation seems to many readers to be a jarring note: yet it is but the limited and imperfect form in which he expresses his intense hatred of evil. “The duty of keeping alive in the human heart the sense of burning indignation against moral evil—against selfishness, against injustice, against untruth, in ourselves as well as in others,—that is as much a part of the Christian as of the Jewish dispensation.” Stanley, Lect. on Jewish Church, 1. p. 216 (Lect. xi), quoted by Kay.

Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts:
23. Search me &c.] God has searched him and knows him (Psalm 139:1): but he will welcome the continuance of that piercing scrutiny, not seek to avoid it. Cp. Psalm 26:2.

23, 24. In no spirit of presumptuous self-confidence, but with an honest desire to be saved from self-deception and guided in the way of true life, the Psalmist ends by inviting and welcoming that Divine scrutiny which he knows to be a fact and from which he cannot escape (Psalm 139:1 ff.), and praying for that Divine guidance which is indispensable for him.

And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.
24. any wicked way] Lit. any way of grief, or pain; conduct which leads to suffering and ruin. Some critics, comparing Isaiah 48:5, explain way of idolatry, in contrast to the way of Jehovah (Psalm 25:4), but there is no hint that this was the special danger of the Psalmist.

the way everlasting] A way of life (Psalm 16:11; Proverbs 12:28) and peace (Isaiah 59:8), the opposite to the way of ruin and death. See Psalm 1:6; Psalm 25:4-5; Jeremiah 21:8. Whether the Psalmist’s view was limited to this world, or whether he saw that such a way must lead on to fuller life after death, cannot be decided with certainty. Some render the ancient way, and follow the Targum in explaining it to mean the good old way in which the godly men of former ages walked (cp. Jeremiah 6:16; Jeremiah 18:15); but this sense is less obvious.

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